100 Million Fuel-Efficient Cookstoves by 2020, Is It Possible?

October 30, 2011

The inside of a lightweight efficient brick cookstove constructed in Haiti. Source: The Morningside Post

The world of fuel-efficient cookstoves is unknown to most of us. In the developed world, we cook with the ease of ovens and stoves powered by gas or electricity.

Our main complaints in the kitchen are banal, such as why we need more counter space or who will clean up the dishes.

In the rest of the world, three billion people use inefficient rudimentary stoves that cook using trees and agricultural waste, better known as biomass. The use of these stoves is a leading cause of numerous health and environmental problems in many developing countries.

In an attempt to solve this problem, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would provide $50 million for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The organization’s goal is to provide 100 million fuel-efficient cookstoves to the developing world by 2020. Their goal has proven to be a challenging one as a little more than one year later, the alliance has yet to distribute any funds. Their task is beset with difficulties, from the high-falutin, such as how to distribute the millions in grant money, to the prosaic, how to design a stove versatile enough to cook Haiti’s rice and beans and Ethiopia’s injara.

Disconnects between Funders and Locals

Vahid Jahangiri is the energetic Deputy Director of the International Lifeline Fund, a non-profit that has been implementing fuel-efficient cookstove programs across the world since 2008. In his twenty years of experience, he is often disappointed because of the disconnect between donor intentions and implementation. Not to mention, the lack of cultural understanding from foundation workers can be astounding. He talks a mile a minute and is eager to speak of his extraordinary experiences abroad.

He told me of about an American program manager who approached him about collaborating with International Lifeline Fund’s stove program in a Darfurian Refugee Camp.

The typical dish of the Sudanese is a thick millet porridge called asida. To create the dish properly requires forceful stirring so naturally the cookstoves in these areas should be quite durable. When Jahangiri learned that they were providing stoves made of flimsy material, he worried that they wouldn’t withstand the strong stirring of the women in the camps. He asked the American program manager, “How will they make their asida?” To which she replied, “What’s asida?” This is just one of the many examples of the significant disconnect between the high-minded intentions of donors and humanitarian organizations and the realities on the ground.

Local Challenges

Jahangiri’s goal is capacity building, to create local leaders who can continue the trainings without him. “I want them to be able to build stoves and conduct trainings without me and better than me,” he said. To that end, he has tried to make training fun by throwing goat parties, feeding his clients while demonstrating the cookstove.

Still, training locals to use the cookstoves is the biggest problem he faces. An initial challenge to training is selecting which women should be trained. Once the community hears the announcement, everyone wants to be part of the project. To narrow his choices in Darfur where female literacy is at 62%, he made an announcement that the selection process would require a written examination.

The polarizing world of solar cookstoves

Despite the success of many stoves in reducing the amount of fuel needed to cook, none are completely clean—except for solar cookers. Erin Patrick, Senior Program Officer for the Fuel and Firewood Initiative at the Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for the use of fuel-efficient stoves to reduce gender-based violence. “Solar seems so logical because in many of these places there is so much sun. For example, in Chad, it rains only 8 days a year,” she said. But what are people to do those 8 days?

In Dadaab, a town in Kenya near the Somali border that is host to a Somalian refugee camp, there is what Jahangiri refers to as a “solar grave yard.” He explained that solar doesn’t work in the morning, at night, and if it’s cloudy. Solar can be a complementary cooking item, like toaster ovens are to stoves, but using it as sole cooking device can be problematic.

Jack Howell, an organizer for Trust in Education, a nonprofit that has just recently supplied 100 cookstoves to Afghanistan, is a firm advocate for solar ovens. “The beauty of solar is that the food never burns,” said Howell. Solar creates a greenhouse effect and cooks food similar to hotpots. Unlike the ovens in Darfur that are made out of cardboard, Howell’s ovens are made of durable plywood.

Though food cooked solar ovens never burn, it can end up with a different taste.

Sebastian Africano, an experienced cookstove trainer working in Haiti with the non-profit Trees Water People, “Cooks are not ready to sacrifice taste and the custom around cooking. They would be breaking a 2,000 year old tradition.”

Much like hot pots, solar ovens can take a while to cook food. Africano, who spends much of his time in the kitchens watching women cook, feels privileged to be in the intimacy of people’s homes and admits that it is one of the favorite parts of his job.

“It’s such a sacred experience,” he said. He always asks the women what they seek in stoves. The answer is universal—speed. He quickly corrected himself as he remembered what a Haitian woman once told him, “It’s not the women who want their food cooked fast, it’s the hungry men that want the women to cook the food fast.”

Naturally, people can only use solar ovens when the sun is out, so that means no cooking in the morning or at night. As Patrick noted, “In the United States, we pop our food in the microwave because we are hungry and want our food fast. Why do we think it’s ok for an African woman to spend hours cooking? There is this notion that people in refugee camps are just sitting around doing nothing. Though that may be true of the men, the women are very busy,” she said.  Women in refugee camps take care of their children, their husbands, other members of the families, gather food, water and try to sell whatever they can to make ends meet as they try to create some sense of normalcy in their camps. “With all these tasks in minds it’s hard telling them that they now how to spend seven hours a day cooking one meal,” she added.

Solar can also double the costs of production because it can’t be used all the time so many aid agencies must buy a stove that uses biomass and a solar oven. She told me of the UNHCR’s experience promoting the parabolic (satellite dish shaped) solar oven in Nepal. They claim that they cook food as quickly as kerosene, but each solar cookstove costs $100 whereas the cost of a typical fuel-efficient cookstoves ranges from $10-$30. Unlike the UNHCR, The Jewish World Fund provides solar ovens to refugee camps in Chad for only $16 a piece. The price reflects the quality as they last only 2-3 months.

Unlike solar, which can lead to bland tasteless food, kerosene wins the taste test. Though it is a relatively clean fuel, safety problems are an issue.

“If you give people gas cooking stoves, without the proper training, there is a high chance of accidents. There have even been times where people have even blown themselves up,” Jahangiri said bluntly. “I’ve even seen children in Darfurian and Haitian camps accidentally drink a kerosene.”

Despite these many problems with solar-powered cookstoves, designers and engineers have not given up. Dean Still is the Executive Director of the Aprovecho Research Center, the birth place of many fuel efficient cookstoves. He has been working on stoves since 1989. Every year at Aprovecho they hold a stove camp where they feature and hold competitions for the best fuel-efficient stove. This year’s theme is solar. “Hopefully we can put our minds together to make the appropriate technology to make a solar oven that a woman enjoys cooking with,” he concluded.

Hiccups in the supply chain

For people trying to manufacture sustainable stoves locally, trying to find the right domestic materials is a challenge.

Tammy Tschentscher, a student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, worked in Ethiopia for the German aid organization, GIZ from 2007-2008.

The stoves were made locally with cement and cost about $5. She visited over 100 households asking the women what they thought of their stoves. She found that overall women really like their stoves, the only problem was that some stoves were breaking sooner than others. “We realized that the price of cement was rising,” she explained. “So people were mixing more sand in the cement mixture, to cheat and cut back on the cost.” Instead of lasting 5-7 years, their stoves lasted only 2-3 years.

Even in areas where the locals are not expected to make their own stoves, finding the fuel is a challenge for the humanitarian organizations. For example in Kenya, The UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR) worked with GIZ to provide stoves for the local populations, all they needed was timber for the fuel. They offered the local timber collectors a certain price, but the locals rejected it demanding three times the actual price. In Kenya’s arid climate, there is not enough wood for the Kenyan population let alone the exploding Somalian refugee population. The timber traders realized they had a monopoly on the wood, so they wouldn’t back down. It took three years of negotiations for both parties to agree on price. Meanwhile the local refugee population suffered.

In Kenya, where dealing with timber traders can be difficult, in Haiti there is what Jahangiri refers to as the “charcoal mafia.” Haitians cook with charcoal and it takes seven kilos of firewood to make one kilo of charcoal. In the villages, people gather the firewood that they sell to a middleman who then brings it to the city where women sell it on the street. With the introduction of fuel-efficient stoves, the middlemen would lose their main source of income.

Despite designers’ best intentions, they forget about the challenges of working developing world.

According to Still, the Executive Director of the cookstove research center, “Americans think you can just push a button and materials appear. That may work here, but not in developing countries where you have to buy your supplies from itty bitty mom and pop hardware stoves”. After the Haitian earthquake, an American from a stove manufacturing organization approached Jahangiri. He was very proud of his design that used coal pellets as fuel. “Where are you going to get coal from?” Jahangiri asked the man incredulously. The man looked stunned. He didn’t realize that you couldn’t find coal easily in Haiti, let alone in pellet form.

100 million stoves by 2020

On Sept 21, 2010 Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was given $50 million. But to date, that money has not yet been distributed. To find out why, I asked Corine Hart and Amy Sticklor who work at the Alliance in April.

Despite the grandiose name and the powerful reputation of the stakeholders, such as the US government, Shell Corporation, in April, there were only three full time people working for the Alliance.

Hart sounded frustrated as I told her in April that many in the cookstove world were asking why the money had not been distributed. “People think we are just going to give out money to whoever makes stoves on the ground, but it doesn’t work like that,” she explained. “We will fund projects that are commercially viable, clean and efficient.” Some companies look promising such as EnviroFit, StoveTech, Prakti Design, Poyola, Firstenergy, Ugastove and HELP International. “We don’t care if the stoves are made on the ground or if they are sent in, as a long as those three criteria are met [viable, clean and efficient], we will fund those projects,” said Hart.

Hart and Sticklor estimated that to reach the Alliances goal of 100 million stoves by 2010 they need about $250 million. Just recently they organized a meeting 350 experts within 11 working groups to develop strategic plan and business plan, basically how the money will be distributed.

I spoke with Amy Sticklor again in late September and she clarified that the Alliance will not be giving money directly to manufacturers, but rather to micro-finance institutions.  The exact time of distributed funds in not clear, but such is the nature of many development projects. What the Alliance has succeeded in doing is attracting the attention of high profile celebrities such as Julia Roberts to spread awareness.

Is the goal realistic? “Suuuure,” said Dean Still, the veteran cookstove designer. He works closely in the planning part of the Alliance offered a very simple way to reach the Alliance’s goal, “If India and China do their projects that’s 200 million stoves right there!”

The Morningside Post (www.themorningsidepost.com

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